An awkward age: mapping consent in the digital era
Germany's digital age of consent is 16 but Ireland's is just 13. Our reporter explores why the Government and children's rights bodies are unexpectedly ad idem on the digital age of consent for teens
Online access for children is the thorny subject that has to be negotiated in the vast majority of cases that come before Joanna Fortune.
The Dublin-based clinical psychotherapist, who works with children and families, says there's often a stumbling block when it comes to the manner in which children engage with the internet and the amount of time they spend online, and what their parents are comfortable with.
"Parents are, rightly, concerned about what they're doing online and some recent cases that have come before the courts have shown that they're right to be worried."
It's a subject that is being thrown into sharp relief right now as the debate intensifies about what the digital age of consent should be for Irish children. The Government and child protection agencies suggest 13 years of age, but some cybersecurity experts believe this is far too young and Ireland should take its lead from Germany where the digital age of consent is set at 16.
The digital age of consent refers to the age from which it is legal for data controllers to hold data gathered on children and teenagers. For children under the age of 13, parental consent will be required.
Some contend that 13 is already the de facto age for digital consent as it is, for instance, the minimum age that Facebook allows its members to be (although younger children could lie about their age).
The Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, has welcomed the proposed move, saying it "takes a more realistic view of children and young people's internet use, and of the integral role that the online environment plays in their lives.
"Choosing 13 as the digital age of consent is in keeping with international children's rights standards as it allows for the balancing of the different rights that children have. It also acknowledges the opportunities, as well the risks that the online environment presents to children and young people."
But Dr Mary Aiken, adjunct associate professor at UCD and a cybersecurity expert, believes 13 is far too young, and Ireland would be much wiser to opt for an age when children are well into their teenage years. "It's not over yet," she says. "This consultation process is to consultation what fake news is to news. The process has been categorically inadequate and I am being inundated with calls and emails from parents, teachers and professionals who simple do not understand the issue and feel they have not been consulted.
"It is my intention to do everything I can to stop these technology companies from using Irish children like clickbait."
Aiken points out that Germany, France and the Netherlands "have excellent practice in this area" and are staying with 16 as the age of consent, while "the UK is proposing an amendment to the data protection bill for children aged 13 to 17, acknowledging that while they are above the age of consent, they are still children that require protection.
"Our government," she adds, "is actively decreasing the age to 13, which makes us an outlier in terms of policy."
Earlier this month, the special rapporteur for child protection, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, echoed Muldoon's sentiments when appearing before the Oireachtas justice committee.
He also suggested that blocking certain sites could prevent children from accessing "much-needed" services such as online counselling or advice which they may wish to access without telling others, and he also argued that it was important to preserve children's "right to be forgotten".
"We all know that young people sometimes insert material online that they would regret afterwards. We need to recognise and acknowledge the vulnerability of young people." He said this issue is not dealt with under current legislation. Irrespective of what age is finally approved by the May 25 deadline when the EU General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect, Joanna Fortune believes the best way for parents to ensure that their children stay safe online is to engage with them about their internet behaviour.
"It's best to sit down with them and go through their phone - if they have one - and talk about new apps and so on. A lot of people who might consider themselves to be tech savvy won't have heard of newer social media sites like Kik, and they really need to be aware of them."
Anonymous instant messaging service Kik Interactive was in the news last week after it emerged that it was one of the services that Dublin man Matthew Horan (26) had been using to coerce young girls to send him sexually graphic pictures and videos of themselves.
Darker side of the web
"I got to know it when children that I would see in the course of my work started to talk about it," Fortune says, "and because these sort of things go in and out of popularity, it's important that they keep abreast of changes. And the best way they can do that is by talking to them directly, and not going behind their backs."
She also believes the conviction of Horan for possession of thousands of child porn images offers parents an opportunity to talk about the darker side of the web.
"Rather than coming out and saying to them if they had been approached by someone like that online, a tactic that might make them defensive and therefore not communicative, it would be better to ask if they knew if any of their friends had had such an experience," she says.
"Ultimately, parents have to ask themselves if their child even needs a smartphone at all. Every child is different, but it's best to wait until their at least 10 - or starting secondary school before they get one.
"You do hear of children as young as seven and eight buying phones with their Communion money and that's way too young, especially when they're at such a crucial time in their personal development."